Meet BOB SEHLINGER Author of “The Unofficial Guide to Walt Disney World”
September 2003 – Tips for Autistic Children at Walt Disney World
February 2003 – Planning a Business Meeting
November 2002 — Mom! Can Eddie Go to Walt Disney World With Us?
October 2002 – A Day in the Life of a Guidebook Researcher
This interview appeared in the November 6, 2001 Issue #111 of ALL EARS®
ALL EARS® continues its series: Meet the Authors! These interviews give you an opportunity to get to know the authors of various Disney-related books, as well as ask them questions directly.
This month, ALL EARS®' Meet the Authors series features Bob Sehlinger author of The Unofficial Guide to WDW.
Bob is actually the creator of the Unofficial Guide series, with more than 4 million books in print. He is the author or co-author of more than 26 books on travel, whitewater canoeing and kayaking. His books, which are sold worldwide, have been translated into six foreign languages. He is a recipient of the Lowell Thomas Gold Award for excellence in travel journalism.
Originally from Kentucky, Bob now makes his home in Birmingham, Alabama.
Bob recently offered to answer questions for ALL EARS® readers. Welcome, Bob!!!
** Linda Eckwerth, Maryland: When did the first Unofficial Guide to WDW get published? How did you get started writing it?
BOB: The first edition was published in 1984. The concept for the book arose during a trip to the Magic Kingdom with my kids. We paid a lot to get in, but then saw very little because of the long lines. My background is in statistics and in an area of operations research called queuing theory — basically the study of lines and how they work. I wondered if, using queuing theory and an associated discipline called transportation theory, I could develop an itinerary that allowed you to tour the park with a minimum amount of waiting in line. This we accomplished in about two years, followed by field trials using families who had never visited a Disney park. The field trials demonstrated an average saving of about 3.25 hours of standing in line on crowded days. We continue to use the same process, reevaluating and revising the touring plans annually.
** Debbie O'Connor, Farmingdale, NY: I love your books and always read them before a trip. They are not only very informative, but also make me laugh! How many visits to the parks each year is needed to update the Unofficial Guide to Walt Disney World?
BOB: Thank you for your kind words. We usually visit Walt Disney World three times each year: once for an extended stay and twice for shorter stays. Because we work as an eight-person team, we can conduct research that is difficult if not impossible for writers working alone. Riding and timing all of the Disney Transportation System routes and inspecting over 100 hotels each year are good examples.
** Debbie Hill, Malvern, England: Which is your favourite Disney resort and why?. Have you stayed in any of the Disney suites, and if so which was your favourite?
BOB: We've stayed in almost all of the Disney resorts. Our needs, however, are different from those of a family on vacation. We do not, for example, make use of any of the amenities (pool, restaurants, fitness center, boats, etc.) at our hotel. We require a resort where we have fast and easy access to our vehicles and space where we can hold twice daily team meetings. The resort that best meets our needs is Old Key West, where we book a three-bedroom villa that sleeps eight. I also, however, highly recommend Old Key West for families on vacation. In addition, I really like the suites/vacation homes at the Wilderness Lodge.
** Keith Johnson, Seattle, Washington: During your yearly revisions, you are careful to cover new attractions. Do your hotel quality listings and restaurant listings get updated yearly as well? If not, how often are they updated?
BOB: Concerning hotels, we call each hotel prior to our research trip. If there has been a name change, management change, or any sort of addition, renovation, or refurbishment, we schedule the hotel for an inspection. Hotels that report none of the above are inspected every two years. Concerning restaurants, we schedule several anonymous meals at any new eatery. We stay abreast of chef, management, and menu changes at all WDW restaurants and schedule meals at those restaurants as well. All remaining restaurants are inspected each year by our research team from the home office, though we can only sample an evening meal at about 60 percent of them in a given year. To cover the gap and to check new restaurants that open between research trips, we have two Orlando-based food writers.
**Jill Shorrock, Lawrenceville, NJ: What are your feelings about FASTPASS? I think that it could be a lifesaver during busy seasons, however I think it has detrimental effects on my touring (which is ALWAYS during off-season times), causing more significant waits in "standby" lines than we had ever experienced before Fastpass. Will you be re-analyzing the touring plans with this in mind? Thanks so much for your time and great books!!
BOB: Thanks, Jill. I like FASTPASS. It more equally distributes guests among the attractions in a given park. In regard to off-season touring, there's nothing our research shows that indicates FASTPASS having a negative impact. To the contrary, our stats show that FASTPASS diminishes the wait in the standby line more that 80 percent of the time (compared to pre-FASTPASS waits), regardless of season. The 2001 edition and the recently released 2002 edition incorporate FASTPASS strategy into the touring plans.
** JWM1314: How do you like Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? Have you gotten into the hot seat?
BOB: I like it. In fact, I think the shorter time limits on answering a given question represent an improvement on the TV version. Ditto for the enhanced audience participation. And no, none of us Unofficials have made it to the hot seat.
**Diane Tracey: I would like to ask your opinion about the Illuminations Cruise pontoon boat. Since the boat sits under the International Gateway bridge, is there good visibility? Is there significant smoke exposure from the show for asthmatics sitting in this boat, i.e. any greater than for those watching from the shore?
BOB: Unless there has been a recent change, the boat is positioned close to where the International Gateway canal intersects the World Showcase Lagoon, and the visibility is excellent. On most evenings, prevailing winds blow generally in the direction of The American Adventure. If you're really worried about smoke, watch from somewhere between England and Norway at the Future World end of the Lagoon.
**The Carney Family, New Orleans: Our family goes to Walt Disney World about every other year, and since the inception of this book, I buy a copy for every trip… But apart from the new additions, the book has generally been the same. While I'm not complaining, has it ever been considered to scrap the traditional format with the tried-and-true but recycled information?
BOB: Even with our team approach, it's a real challenge to stay on top of changes and developments at WDW. Consequently, that's where we put our energy. Our primary concern is with providing accurate information, and if it isn't broke, as they say, we don't try to fix it. A guest who experiences Peter Pan's Flight in 2001 experiences exactly the same attraction as did a guest in 1972, so coverage of Peter Pan remains the same, or recycled as you put it.
Every year we take on several new, major research projects. Last year, for the 2002 edition, we sampled and critiqued all of the buffets, specials, and meal deals offered by restaurants outside of WDW. We also added a whole new section on the best family hotels outside of Walt Disney World, and a full comparative evaluation of all of the character meals.
Given finite time and resources, we believe that we better serve the reader by maintaining our emphasis on solid, useful content as opposed say, to freshening up prose, which though still accurate, appeared in previous editions. Naturally, we wish we could do both, but as you can imagine, Disney really keeps us hopping!
** Enid AKA webmomom: Maybe you can clear something up for me. Anyone I've asked cannot remember this. Years ago when you took the riding backlot Tour, when you entered the New York Street Scene they had people dressed as if in the Al Capone days, doing a short scene for the trams coming out of the buildings pretending there was a shoot-out going on. I think this happened after a movie had come out about Al Capone. Am I correct?
BOB: Disney tinkers with attractions all the time so your recollection is no doubt correct. We Unofficials, however, did not see this version of the Backlot Tour, suggesting that it was probably short-lived.
** Gail Solomita, Plymouth, Massachusetts: We are about to visit WDW once again, but this time will be our first time with children. We have recently adopted an 11-year-old girl, and I am trying to convince my husband that taking the midday break is essential. He seems to disagree. How can I convince him (other than shoving every guidebook, website, etc. down his throat)? Just how important do you think taking a break is and why? Thanks!
BOB: Simply put, you need to focus on what makes your family happiest as opposed to seeing every attraction or working overtime to get your money's worth. I suggest that you let the issue ride and allow your husband go full-tilt for a day or two. He will convincingly demonstrate for himself the necessity of building rest and time off into your itinerary.
** Margaret Price, Westmont, IL: I've been using your "Unofficial Guide" for years and found it the most helpful/informative in planning our WDW vacations. In the last year or so, I've been spending more time on the 'net–sites like Pete Werner's DIS and Deb Wills' site, and also mousesavers.com, have been very helpful in getting good deals for people. What are your thoughts on the 'net and do you find that more people are looking on-line? Do you have any plans for an internet site?
BOB: I think the 'net is great and more people are using it all the time. We at the Unofficial Guide get lots of excellent information from sites like Deb's.
We would like to have an Unofficial Guide site, but there are a number of complications in regard to domain names and to standing relationships that the publisher (who also publishes Frommer's) has with some of the large, general travel sites.
** Jenny Drake, Lancaster, TN: As a quasi-gourmet who cooks extensively, I have a question about your restaurant reviews: Just what is the standard to which you compare Disney food? To read your guide, one might think there is no edible morsel inside The World.
BOB: People look at Disney dining in several ways. Some folks compare it to eating at an airport, i.e., you're captive so take what's available at expectedly exorbitant prices and make the best of it. Our position, however, is that for the high price you pay, you ought to get something pretty good. This is especially true at WDW where, unlike at the airport, you've a whole universe of restaurants in the greater Orlando/Kissimmee area.
Speaking of which, most Disney full-service restaurants claim to offer fine dining. We don't, therefore, regard Applebees, O'Charley's, Rafferty's, and other chain restaurants as yardsticks against which to compare Disney restaurants. Although I agree that the product of Disney restaurants often approximates that of chain restaurants, we judge Disney in the class of dining that it purports to offer.
Beginning about three years ago, Disney initiated a concerted effort to improve quality and variety in both counter- and full-serve restaurants. We've reported on, and praised Disney for, these developments. But you can't effect global change overnight, so there's still work to be done.
In our 2002 edition, we rate half of the full-serve restaurants at WDW as 3-Star or higher. This is a higher percentage of 3-Star and above restaurants than we see in many city dining guides such as the Zagat and the Eclectic Gourmet guides.
Our standards are what you might expect. We judge on the basis of freshness of ingredients, proper preparation, presentation, adequacy of portions, originality and variety of menu offerings, service, friendliness, and value. Finally, realize that we have to eat at WDW, too. We'd like nothing more than to rate every restaurant at WDW as 5-Star and savor every meal, but that scenario is no more the reality at WDW than it is in Lancaster (where I'm pleased to say I've had a couple of good meals).
Finally, we balance the opinions of our professional dining critics with the opinions of our readers, so for every restaurant you have two opinions to help inform your decision making.
** Bill Balloni, Milwaukee, WI: I bought your Unofficial Guide for the first time last year and was very excited to read it. But, after a while, I found myself a little bit bummed by the somewhat negative tone of many of your reviews. How do you balance the good with the bad when reviewing and describing a place like Walt Disney World?
BOB: Some folks think we're too critical, others accuse us of being too positive. Like most folks, we'd rather compliment than criticize, but like you, we respond to what Disney serves up whether it's a meal, a parade, or an attraction. We don't try to achieve a balance: we take it one piece at a time and try to be as fair, impartial, and objective as we can. When we sit down at a research team meeting and find that we have differences of opinion, we go back to the attraction or restaurant for a second or third look. We are aware that there was a chef, Imagineer, or musician that poured his/her heart into what we are evaluating, and we don't take the effort lightly. But at the end of the day, you're paying a lot of money to go to WDW, and you're entitled to our most honest opinion, be it good, bad, or indifferent.
** Margaret Price, Westmont, IL: We recently bought into the Disney Vacation Club (DVC). The Unofficial Guide mentions that if you bring a copy of your contract to WDW, you can purchase the Florida resident discount pass, but people have posted on the message boards that we can't do this. Why is this noted in the Unofficial Guide? If we can do it, I intend to try for the Florida resident pass.
BOB: The Walt Disney Company is a large corporation. At one time the folks selling the timeshares told us that DVC ownership qualified you as a Florida resident and therefore made you eligible for certain admissions discounts. In retrospect it appears that Disney Admissions was never in the loop, hence the confusion. Now there seems to be consistency across departmental lines to the effect that timeshare ownership does not qualify you for Florida resident status.
** Maryann Nagy, West Paterson, NJ: Every time that we visit WDW, my family and I only take clothing for four days to save space for packing. Each time I do this, we waste valuable time at the laundry room. This year we are staying at the Caribbean Beach Resort. My question is: Do you know if they offer pickup and drop-off laundry services? For me it would be worth the money to spend and be in the parks while our laundry is being cleaned.
BOB: Bell service at the Caribbean will collect your laundry in the morning and usually have it back the same day, but expect to pay an arm and a leg.
** Dave D'Arezzo: Have you heard if La Nouba in Downtown Disney will ever be changed to another show? It's been there a while, and while Cirque is great, even Wayne Newton changes his show from time to time.
BOB: Dave, certain individual acts rotate in or out from time to time but the basic production remains the same.
** Justin Trombley, Webb City, MO: My wife and I are avid Disney World fans. On our last visit we stayed at Port Orleans – Riverside (Dixie Landings at the time). We are planning a trip for May. We want to stay on-property at a Disney resort, however we received a really good rate to stay at the Walt Disney World Dolphin. I know they have Disney transportation and they're very close to several attractions, but is it a good place to stay? Does it lack because it is not a official Disney resort?
BOB: The Swan and Dolphin are primarily meeting/convention hotels. Otherwise you shouldn't notice much difference.
** Joe and Amy Matisek, Colorado Springs, Colorado: Do you anticipate Disney making any security changes in light of the recent terrorist attacks?
BOB: Disney has always had very tight security. It's no accident when someone gets sick in a theme park that half a dozen cast members suddenly appear on the spot. That having been said, Disney security is very proactive. I'm sure that, at a minimum, the terrorist attacks occasioned a thorough review of all aspects of security.
**Mary Morgan, Medina, NY: What other destinations have you written Unofficial Guides for?
BOB: There are 80 books in the Unofficial Guide series, about half on travel. I personally write Unofficial Guides to Walt Disney World, Disneyland, Paris Disneyland, Las Vegas, Cruises (co-author), and Skiing (co-author).
** ALL EARS: Several folks asked: "How can we be part of your research team?"
BOB: Some team members have backgrounds in operations management, statistics, and research design. Others have culinary or hotel management credentials. Readers with professional experience in those areas should write me at P.O. Box 43673, Birmingham, AL 35243.
Other Books Written or Contributed to by Bob Sehlinger: